C. S. Lewis Lewis, C(live) S(taples) (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

C(live) S(taples) Lewis 1898–1963

(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Clive Hamilton, Nat Whilk, and N. W. Clerk) English novelist, essayist, critic, autobiographer, poet, and short story writer.

Lewis is considered one of the foremost Christian authors of the twentieth century. Indebted principally to the works of George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and Charles Williams, and to ancient Norse myths, he is regarded as a formidable logician and Christian polemicist, a perceptive literary critic, and—most highly—as a writer of fantasy literature. Among the imaginative works for which he is best known are The Screwtape Letters (1942), the series of children's books collectively called The Chronicles of Narnia, and the science-fiction trilogy comprising Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945). The conflicts presented in Lewis's fiction evoke the cosmic struggle between good and evil, and evidence the Christian vision which informs his literary and critical works.

An acknowledged authority on medieval and Renaissance literature, Lewis taught at Oxford and Cambridge. A traditionalist in his approach to life and art, he opposed the modern movement in literary criticism toward biographical and psychological interpretation. Instead, Lewis practiced and propounded a theory of criticism which stresses the importance of the author's intent, rather than the reader's presuppositions and prejudices. In his Christian polemics, notably Mere Christianity (1952), The Abolition of Man (1943), and The World's Last Night and Other Essays (1960), Lewis's renowned wit and reason serve to defend the faith he embraced in 1931 and to attack the modern social/religious trend which equates change—no matter how foolish or destructive—with progress. Ever popular, Lewis's books continue to attract a growing readership and are the subject of increasing critical study.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 14; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; and Something about the Author, Vol. 13.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An anonymous critic provided the only review of Lewis's first book, a collection of traditional poetry written under the pseudonym "Clive Hamilton" and titled Spirits in Bondage.]

These lyrics are always graceful and polished, and their varied themes are chosen from those which naturally attract poets—the Autumn Morning, Oxford, Lullaby, The Witch, Milton Read Again, and so on. The thought, when closed with, is found rather often not to rise above the commonplace. The piece which most arrested us was "The Satyr."

A review of "Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1919; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 897, March 27, 1919, p. 167.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The long narrative poem "Dymer," written by C. S. Lewis under the pseudonym of Clive Hamilton] is notable because it is in the epic tradition and yet is modern in idiom, and reflects a profoundly personal intuition…. [Doubtless] the prejudice which exists against the epic as a modern art form is due to a belief that in civilized hands it must prove an impure form, a form in which substance and idea are not necessarily related.

Mr. Hamilton has disproved that belief by showing that, in the modern epic, the spiritual may be translated into terms of the physical as inevitably as, in the primitive epic, the physical was translated into terms of the imaginative. He has shown this more convincingly than Mr. Masefield in "Dauber," with which his poem may be usefully compared, because Dymer's experience is throughout metaphysical. His ordeal is not on the high seas but in the swamps and arid places of his own soul-making. To embody such an experience in action is very difficult. For realism is unequal to its complexity, while fantasy easily tempts into regions picturesque but remote from reality. It demands, in fact, a symbolism in which adventures, essentially abstract, are made concrete and physically convincing. And it is such a symbolism which Mr. Hamilton has achieved, not by occult brooding but in response to immediate and commanding intuitions. Consequently the adventures of his hero, though fantastic, are entirely real. They are...

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Albert Guerard, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Too frequently the professional historian is not a good scholar because he wholly ignores esthetic considerations. Mr. C. S. Lewis, in his study of allegory and courtly love ["The Allegory of Love"], shows himself to be even more a man of letters than a literary historian. But as a literary historian he suffers from the defect of his qualities. Time and again he deserts his real subject, the history of allegory as a form and courtly love as a sentiment, for long excursions into pure esthetic criticism. He feels it incumbent upon him to indicate all the scattered felicities in even such a poet as William Nevill. Mr. Lewis has tried to rescue something from the dust of each of the long allegories he examines.

Thus "The Allegory of Love" is in reality two books—both excellent, but each vitiating the other. The purely historical study of the growth and decline of allegory and courtly love is a careful piece of scholarship, and the first and second chapters are excellent essays in comparative literature. With the third chapter, however, it is evident that the author has become more interested in individual poets than in historical tendencies, and at this point the thread of the "story" is lost….

The incidental merits of this book, while detracting from its value as scholarship, are very great. I suspect that Mr. Lewis is more interested in literary theory than in history: an abstract of his preliminary analysis and definitions would constitute a valuable little book on the criticism of poetry, as well as a thorough introduction to the study of late medieval literature.

Albert Guerard, Jr., "Courtly Love," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I. H. T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 18, 1936, p. 14.

J.R.R. Tolkien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, was one of the "Inklings," a group of friends who met weekly in Lewis's rooms to discuss literature and to read works-in-progress to each other. During the few years of its existence, the group included Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, W. H. Lewis, and several other noteworthy regulars. Tolkien, a man of strict and very conservative literary standards, frequently disliked Lewis's imaginative works. But in the following letter to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, Tolkien defended his friend's novel Out of the Silent Planet. On 2 March 1938, Unwin had sent Tolkien an excerpt from a reader's report, which had disparaged as "bunk" the inhabitants of Lewis's planet Malacandra. Unwin asked Tolkien for his thoughts on Lewis's book.]

Lewis is a great friend of mine, and we are in close sympathy (witness his two reviews of my Hobbit): this may make for understanding, but it may also cast an unduly rosy light. Since you ask for my opinion, here it is.

I read [Out of the Silent Planet] in the original MS. and was so enthralled that I could do nothing else until I had finished it. My first criticism was simply that it was too short. I still think that criticism holds, for both practical and artistic reasons. Other criticisms, concerning narrative style (Lewis is always apt to have rather creaking stiff-jointed passages), inconsistent details in the plot, and philology, have since been corrected to my satisfaction. The author holds to items of linguistic invention that do not appeal to me (Malacandra, Maleldil—eldila, in any case, I suspect to be due to the influence of the Eldar in the Silmarillion—and Pfifltriggi); but this is a matter of taste. After all your reader found my invented names, made with cherished care, eye-splitting. But the linguistic inventions and the philology on the whole are more than good enough. All the part about language and poetry—the glimpses of its Malacandrian nature and form—is very well done, and extremely interesting, far superior to what one usually gets from travellers in untravelled regions. The language difficulty is usually slid over or fudged. Here it not only has verisimilitude, but also underlying thought.

I was disturbed by your reader's report. I am afraid that at the first blush I feel inclined to retort...

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Alistair Cooke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There must be profound reasons why wars spawn so many quack religions and Messiahs, but to discover them would require an exhaustive psychological study of the relations of war and peace to personal insecurity. On a lower level, we may wonder at the alarming vogue of Mr. C. S. Lewis, whose harmless fantasies about the kingdoms of Good and Evil ("Out of the Silent Planet," "The Screwtape Letters" and now "Perelandra") have had a modest literary success, while multitudes of readers, and in Britain radio listeners, succumb to the charm of his more direct treatises on Christian conduct.

It may be that a war in which our own shining ideology is so blurred by political trickery, cowardice and double-talk,...

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W. H. Auden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The pedagogic purpose of "The Great Divorce" is to correct a misunderstanding of a misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of Hell, to clarify what Dante saw written over the gates of the Inferno: "Justice moved my High Maker: Divine Power made me Wisdom Supreme, and Primal Love." The original misunderstanding was to think of the Law of God in terms of the laws of men, that is, as something He imposes on individuals, with or without their consent, and for breaking which He imposes, without their consent, an eternal penalty. If this were true, it would really imply that there were two Gods, an imminent God the Creator, and a transcendent God the Judge, and against such a dualism liberal theology very properly...

(The entire section is 920 words.)

John Wain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This author is of course well known as a controversialist—indeed my view is that the death of George Orwell left Mr. Lewis standing alone as our major controversial author—and while controversialists are common enough in the world of letters, they do not usually get asked to contribute to a 'safe' academic series like the Oxford History of English Literature. So it is important to begin by saying that the controversial nature of the book [English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, volume III of The Oxford History of English Literature] does not make it any the less helpful as a literary history. The chief functions of a literary history are fulfilled: the names are strung together,...

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Kathryn Ann Lindskoog

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[C. S. Lewis's] Narnian series hinges upon the acceptance of supernatural phenomena…. (p. 33)

There are, of course, skeptics in these books. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the children did not accept Lucy's tale about discovering Narnia when they first heard it. They consulted the wise old professor about her strange story. They complained that when they looked in the wardrobe there was nothing there, asserting that if things are real they're there all the time. "Are they?" the Professor said. The time element also bothered the children. During less than one minute, Lucy claimed to have spent several hours in Narnia. "That is the very thing that makes her story so likely to be...

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Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[While serving as a professor at Cambridge, Lewis wrote An Experiment in Criticism in response to the increasingly popular critical theories of his fellow Cambridge don, F. R. Leavis. Lewis believed that Leavis wrongly placed critical emphasis on the subjective extraction of meaning from literary texts, rather than on simply receiving and evaluating them according to the authors' own purposes. Kermode, himself a distinguished critic, saw much to Lewis's approach.]

Modern criticism, perhaps because it is multitudinous and arcane, is often thought, by modern critics especially, to be very valuable. Now Professor Lewis does not think so; he has an air of strenuous disinterest, but one...

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Chad Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is not hard to enumerate the assets that Lewis brought with him when he set out to be a writer. First of all, intelligence. His mind, sharpened by lifelong training, was formidable in its power and precision. One can disagree with him to the point of fury, but not condescend. Coupled with the superb mind was solid erudition. He was master of classical, medieval, and Renaissance literature, so much at home in it that he could make use of its symbols and themes with unconscious ease and grace. Greek and Roman mythology and the legends of the Celts and Germanic peoples were as much a part of his literary frame of reference as the Bible. His books grew out of the collective memory of Western mankind.


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Neil Ribe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lewis talks about male and female so often that it is hard to know where to begin, or indeed what to leave out [of an essay on his view of the subject]…. Why does this theme appear so often, and in so many different guises—as poetry, essay, fiction and myth? For Lewis, the reason is simple. Masculine and feminine are not merely curious facts about biological existence; they reflect the very structure of the universe. To understand the enigma of masculine and feminine is to have approached the mystery at the heart of creation where symbol and reality are one….

In the preface to That Hideous Strength—which he calls a "modern fairy tale for grownups"—Lewis notes that his story follows...

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